You probably think that your Thanksgiving meal has everything it needs. Don’t you feel sometimes as though the table would buckle if you added even a single additional plate? But take a look closely at all the dishes, and odds are high you won’t find much spice or acid. Instead, it’s a feast bathed in butter and slicked with gravy. The most assertive ingredient is black pepper. Which is a bit odd for me personally, considering how spice and acid find their way into most of my meals on the other 364 days of the year.
I’m not the only one. In an episode of “Salt Fat Acid Heat” on Netflix, chef and author Samin Nosrat explains how confused she was at her first Thanksgiving meal. Her parents were from Iran, where acid plays a crucial role. Yet, at the Thanksgiving table of a college friend, it didn’t seem that important. “There was hardly anything acidic to cut through the richness of all the food,” Nosrat says.
I began to wonder, “Could I brighten up Thanksgiving?”
Sure, you could make a case for the tartness in cranberry sauce, but often it’s so sweet, it might as well be a dessert. And that’s if it’s not neglected altogether.
I roasted a turkey breast and started sampling sauces. Things started off well. Because turkey meat is so mild, you can douse it with just about any spicy or acidic sauce and good things happen. A simple lemon vinaigrette adds a sunny brightness. Chimi- churri adds an herb-laden freshness. Sure, a hot sauce like Sriracha overpowers the delicate meat, but Frank’s and Tabasco enliven each bite without obliterating the bird’s natural flavor.
With these early successes, I dove off the deep end and tried some sauces that would truly make the grandma in that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting (“Freedom from Want”) truly blush.
Ever tried nuoc cham on turkey? The common Vietnamese sauce, made with lime, sugar, chiles and a healthy splash of funky fish sauce, adds tongue-tingling fireworks to the meat. The same can be said for chermoula, a North African condiment that gets its green hue from finely chopped parsley and cilantro, along with a punch of complexity from cumin and Aleppo chiles. A Turkish yogurt and pomegranate seed sauce added a pleasing tang and pop of acidity.
Had I just hacked Thanksgiving? To check, I whipped up a practice version of the whole meal, complete with mashed potatoes and stuffing. And that’s precisely when my plan went off the rails. Turns out, spicy and acidic sauces don’t play well with traditional Thanksgiving sides. That lemon vinaigrette gets lost in the mashed potatoes, and the nuoc cham clashes with the stuffing.
In all, I tried a dozen different sauces, and none of them worked with the whole meal.
Flush with failure, I flung open the fridge to see if there was any spicy or acidic thing I’d forgotten. Turns out, there was one: giardiniera. For some inexplicable reason, the Italian mix of pickled vegetables and chiles loves Thanksgiving. It adds a friendly slap of spice and a thrilling shock of acid without stepping on the toes of the traditional Thanksgiving crew. Who knew?
It was news to Jim Graziano, whose family has run J.P. Graziano Grocery, an Italian importer and beloved deli in Chicago, since 1937. “To be dead honest, for Thanksgiving, we play it by the book,” Graziano says. He adds that his family often adds a pasta course before the traditional menu, but he had never thought about using some of his family’s excellent giardiniera for the meal.
Just a heads-up. I’m referring to the kind of giardiniera that is olive oil-based, not vinegar-based, and has a lot of chiles in the mix. This kind of giardiniera is most popular in Chicago.
You probably already have a great Thanksgiving turkey recipe. But if you’re in need, here’s just about the most basic one imaginable. (Personally, I think dry-brining is tops, but that requires time.) Just remember to bust out the jar of giardiniera when the turkey hits the table.
Prep: 20 minutes
Roast: 3 to 4 hours
Makes: 15 servings
1 whole turkey (12 to 15 pounds)
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 bunch fresh herbs (thyme, sage or rosemary)
3 tablespoons canola oil
Cut off wingtips from turkey, and remove bag of giblets. Season the outside and inside of the turkey with the salt and pepper. Add herbs to the turkey cavity. Drizzle skin with canola oil.
Place turkey on a rack set on a baking sheet. Set baking sheet to the lowest rack of the oven. Roast until the breast registers 155 degrees and the thighs are 165 degrees, using an instant read thermometer. This will take 3 to 4 hours, depending on the size of turkey.
Carefully remove turkey from the oven, and set aside for 30 minutes. Carve and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 487 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 188 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 70 g protein, 661 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Prep: 1 hour
Chill: 3 days
Makes: 3 cups
This simple giardiniera was developed by the Chicago Tribune’s test kitchen director at the time, Donna Pierce, in 2007. It requires a few days of chilling but can be made well ahead of Thanksgiving Day.
6 jalapenos, thinly sliced
2 each, diced: green and red bell peppers
1 each, diced: celery rib, carrot, yellow onion
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 cup salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped stuffed green olives
2 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup each: apple cider vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the jalapenos, bell peppers, celery, carrot, onion and cauliflower florets in a large bowl; stir in the salt. Add cold water to cover vegetables; cover bowl. Refrigerate, 12 hours. Drain salt water; rinse vegetables. Set aside in the bowl.
Combine the garlic, olives, oregano, red pepper flakes, celery seeds and black pepper to taste in a medium bowl; set aside.
Pour the vinegar into a medium bowl; whisk in the seasonings. Whisk in the olive oil. Pour over the vegetable mixture; toss lightly. Cover; refrigerate at least 48 hours before using. The giardiniera will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 49 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 300 mg sodium, 1 g fiber